We all know how this story ended in 2012. The New York Yankees were able to squeak by a hobbled Baltimore Orioles club in five games in the ALDS before getting swept by our beloved Tigers in the ALCS. Would the World Series have gone differently if the Bronx Bombers put up more of a fight? That's neither here nor there at this point, but a tumultuous offseason has Yankees fans focused on more pressing thoughts: whether their favorite club is headed for the dreaded "rebuilding" phase.
Manager: Joe Girardi (6th year)
2012 record: 95-67, 1st in AL East
SB Nation blog: Pinstriped Bible
Other Yankees coverage: It's About the Money
First series vs. Tigers: April 5-7 @ Comerica Park
As you may have heard, the Yankees lineup has been decimated by injuries already this year. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Curtis Granderson will all (likely) begin the season on the disabled list with only Jeter and Granderson due back relatively soon. In the meantime, Eduardo Nunez will get most of the playing time at shortstop in Jeter's absence. Nunez has hit .272/.318/.384 in limited action in three big league seasons and is an excellent bench option for Joe Girardi. However, he won't be able to match the .313/.362/.429 numbers that Jeter put up last year. Jeter's power is beginning to fade a bit, but he's still one of the best hitting shortstops in baseball.
Kevin Youkilis signed with the Yankees during the offseason to play third base while Alex Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery. I'm not sure about A-Rod's chances at a successful comeback -- hip injuries and baseball players don't mix too well -- but Youkilis seems ready to put 2012 behind him by having a monster spring, hitting five home runs in 50 plate appearances so far.
There aren't many great options in camp to take Mark Teixeira's position at first base while he recovers from a wrist injury, so the Yankees gave Lyle Overbay a minor league contract a couple days ago. This move was a bit puzzling, as Juan Rivera is hitting a solid .305/.328/.390 so far this spring.
However, the Overbay move pales in comparison to the mind-boggling trade that brought Vernon Wells back to the AL East in exchange for two of the most absurdly-named prospects ever known to man. Wells will compete with Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, and Joe Girardi's dog for playing time in one of the corner outfield spots. Francisco has put up nice numbers this spring, but my bet is on Wells, with the dog getting playing time over Brett Gardner. Speaking of Gardner, he appears to have a starting job, but as explained below, Joe Girardi doesn't seem to know what he has in him.
At catcher, I defer to @TrippingOlney, who seems to have a much better handle on things than I do.
THE YANKEES LET RUSSELL MARTIN WALK AND WENT WITH SOMETHING CALLED A CHRIS STEWART AT CATCHER. BUT THEY'LL TOTALLY PAY VERNON WELLS $13M.— NOT BUSTER OLNEY (@TRIPPINGOLNEY) March 24, 2013
He doesn't seem to be a fan of the Vernon Wells deal either.
Now, some good news. Ichiro Suzuki hit .322/.340/.454 in 67 games after being traded to the Yankees last season and should continue to be an excellent contact hitter. His .279 BABIP with the Seattle Mariners last season isn't that low for a normal human being, but Ichiro's career BABIP is .347. Add in a couple extra home runs to the short porch in right field, and Ichiro should have a bounce-back season.
And then there's the best second baseman in baseball, Robinson Cano. Cano put up a monster season last year, hitting .313/.379/.550 with 33 home runs and 94 RBI. He went ice cold in the playoffs -- like pretty much everyone else on their roster -- but practically willed the Yankees to the AL East crown by hitting .558/.574/.930 in the team's final 10 regular season games.
CC Sabathia is still the class of the Yankees rotation and will once again be a workhorse*. Sabathia had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow shortly after the Yankees were eliminated last season, but hasn't shown any reason to doubt that he will be the same pitcher that has tossed 200+ innings in each of his last five seasons, and has never thrown less than 180 innings in a single season. He's not just an innings eater, either. Sabathia hasn't had an ERA above 3.38 since Alan Trammell was the Tigers' manager.
*The contractual obligations of sportswriting state that any paragraph about CC Sabathia contain the word "workhorse." If someone doesn't do this, be sure to tell them how wrong they are.
Hiroki Kuroda signed a one-year deal with the Yankees this offseason after an excellent 2012 season. Kuroda won a career high 16 games with a 3.32 ERA and 1.165 WHIP. He was surprisingly effective at homer-happy Yankee Stadium despite allowing lefties to hit .253/.312/.422 with 15 home runs last year. His FIP and xFIP were slightly elevated -- 3.86 and 3.67, respectively -- but shouldn't be a concern heading into 2013.
Andy Pettitte will turn 41 in June, but he showed no signs of slowing down last season with a 2.87 ERA in 75 1/3 innings of work. Those numbers probably aren't sustainable -- it was only the second season in his career that he has had a strikeout rate above eight punchouts per nine innings, and the other time was in just 83 innings in 2004. I'm interested to see how he holds up over a full season, something he hasn't done since 2009.
Phil Hughes will begin the season on the disabled list due to a bulging disk in his lower back, but should be back in the rotation shortly after their series against the Tigers. Hughes won 16 games in a career high 191 1/3 innings in 2012.
Hughes' injury gives manager Joe Girardi another week or so to determine who wins the fifth starter competition. Right-handers Ivan Nova and David Phelps have both put up decent spring numbers, though Phelps may have pulled ahead with nine strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings against the Baltimore Orioles last night. His 2012 numbers were much better coming out of the bullpen, but a 3.77 ERA in 11 starts is nothing to scoff at. Nova wasn't great in 2012, as his 5.02 ERA attests. However, he was particularly homer prone and his xFIP was a respectable 3.92. If he can keep the ball in the park, Nova will be an asset in the back of the rotation.
Mariano Rivera is back in the bullpen after tearing his ACL last May, but interim closer Rafael Soriano jumped ship to the Washington Nationals after an excellent 2012 season. David Robertson excelled in a setup role after lasting all of two days as the closer. Joba Chamberlain has had a decent spring, but has only pitched 49 1/3 innings over the past two seasons. He also has a hideous mustache now.
There are many other players more important to the Yankees' success this season, but few have had the same impact on their success in the past two decades that Mariano Rivera has had. His career stats are simply staggering, and his career 0.70 postseason ERA is truly unbelievable. Like Chipper Jones last season, this is the last chance we have to watch one of the greatest players in baseball history perform his craft. Rivera's cutter is arguably the best single pitch of all-time -- hell, he made an entire career off of just that pitch -- and his numbers will likely never be matched.
Spring Training storylines
Where do we begin? The biggest stories early on were the respective ankle and knee rehab sagas of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Rivera then made headlines by announcing that 2013 would be his final season, but has largely kept quiet by being the same dominant reliever he has been for the past 18 years. Jeter's ankle flared up on him a couple weeks ago and he will probably begin the season on the disabled list, but could be back as early as April 6th against the Tigers.
The real fireworks, however, have happened everywhere else. Curtis Granderson broke his forearm and Mark Teixeira hurt his wrist, resulting in the Yankees making desperation moves like signing Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay, and trading for Vernon Wells' massive contract. The first two moves can be understood, but the Wells deal is a real head-scratcher. Granderson will likely only miss four to six weeks, and Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki are both healthy in the other two outfield spots. Yankees fans wonder where the money being spent on Wells was when Nick Swisher walked out the door via free agency, and it's hard to blame them.
Player to watch: Brett Gardner
It's too bad that the Tigers play the Yankees so early on this season, because I was looking forward to seeing Joe Girardi play guys like Vernon Wells or Brennan Boesch over the pesky Gardner, who has done nothing but foul off pitches like crazy, get on base at a .365 clip over the past three seasons, and steal nearly 50 bases per year when healthy. He's also an above average defender in center field and a plus defender in left, though his arm isn't the best. I'm interested in seeing how Girardi uses Gardner throughout the year, whether as a starter or a bench outfielder and pinch runner. Simply put: if he's not starting, opponents should be thankful.
I was skeptical about saying this a week or two ago, but recent moves have made it obvious: the Yankees are in trouble. Mark Teixeira looks destined for wrist surgery, Alex Rodriguez will probably be a shell of himself for the rest of his career, there isn't much offense outside of Robinson Cano, and the pitching is suspect. There's still a chance that the Yankees could come out and be The Yankees, but each day seems to bring more evidence pointing against that thought. If 2013 doesn't mark the start of their downfall, the financial issues that they are facing this offseason might prove our latest suspicions: the Yankees are no longer the class of the AL East.